Thursday, March 24, 2011

Great Music for Great Cause

Gonna be some great music supporting a great cause at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar this Sunday (3/27/11). James "The Blues Hound" Nagel is pitching his annual "wang dang doodle" fundraiser for the best radio station in Houston--KPFT 90.1. Doors open for the SPRING HOWL at 1pm and the H-Town Jukes kick the proceedings off at 2pm.

The Blues Hound has been keeping the blues alive in Houston (and beyond) for at least as long as I've been listening to the blues in Houston. I can't really recall a blues show that I've attended and not seen James Nagel introducing the band, snapping photos, assisting the best blues society in the state, dancing with his wife and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. I've even spotted him giving the folks over in Navasota a hand with their Navasota Blues Festival honoring Mance Lipscomp. He runs a fantastic calendar of blues music, detailing where the blues is being played and will be played around the Houston area. The calendar can be found at and at

Monday, March 21, 2011

Double Trouble

No not that 'Double Trouble'. Not SRV's rhythm drivers. No, I'm talking about the tandem of Mark Hummel and Mike Morgan, who literally smoked the blues at The Big Easy in Houston last Saturday night. Now I've been a fan of both of these bluesmen since they began sharing their recordings with us and what a treat it was to see them playing in the same band. Hummel hasn't waded into the Bayou City since 1996 and the last time I saw Morgan was when he backed Gary Primich for a live recording. What a treat it also was to see them playing together at the best blues bar in Texas. I've witnessed some of the finest blues shows at this fine blues club and this show ranks as one of the finest that I seen there.

If I have to explain to you that Mark Hummel is one of the best harmonica blowers in the country, then shame on you, or that Mike Morgan is one of the best blues guitarist that the state of Texas has produced (and that is claiming a mouthful), then double shame. Morgan absolutely knows how to back a blues harp player, after employing a heck of a harp man, Lee McBee, as front man for The Crawl for years. So, Hummel and Morgan stood toe to toe and had the crowd on its toes (literally for some because it was a packed house) all night long.

Hummel pulled out all the stops and songs from most all his albums. Nobody swings the blues as well as he does and then also gets down into the gut bucket back alley . The man tapped an endless variety of grooves from the rumba tinged Ooh La La to driving shuffles like I'm Hooked. He'd pull some of the deepest darned fat toned notes from the low end of his harp and then swoop up and pierce the high end, then put the mic down and channel both Sonny Boy's with superbly played acoustic tones. Speaking of which, Hummel has just released an album of acoustic blues called Back Porch Music and it has garnered some great reviews. And speaking of Double Trouble, he took the Otis Rush tune on its minor keyed ride with masterful chromatic harmonica licks and it put Morgan absolutely in his element when Hummel had him step in and sweeten the pot. Hummel gave him plenty of leash all night to do just that, and Morgan unleashed his skills every time he stepped to the front of the stage. He masterfully aimed his axe where he needed to go--sit back and help drive the rhythm and then step up and smoke the frets. No blues rock in this boy, though, just smokin' blues licks. He ripped it on I'm Hooked and Lowel Fulson's Price of Love and Linda Lu (well, he ripped it all evening, actually). He slid the slide like Muddy on She Moves Me (while Hummel pulled the deep stuff like Little Walter). Bob Margolin is the only guitarist that I've seen who comes as close to getting Muddy Waters' slide as Morgan did that night.

And, since I mentioned driving the rhythm, Double Trouble ain't got nothing on bassist R.W. Grigsby and Wes Starr. These two veterans just might represent the best bottom end of a blues band that I've seen in a long, long time. I don't know how many times I heard, "Damn, those guys are good!" Well, I do know this--that Hummel snagged Mike Morgan for his DFW gig and brought him along to Houston and that R.W. has been a member of Hummel's Blues Survivors for awhile now. Not sure if Wes Starr is playing with him now or was just part of his Texas package, because Starr has been around the horn in the Lone Star state, having once been the house drummer at Antones club, been one of Omar's Howlers, Funderburgh's Rockets, session man for Dial Tone (including backing up Little Joe Washington), and playing with just about everyone else in the state. I'll just agree and say, "Hell, yeah, those guys were good".

I could go on and on and on, I guess. I could keep telling you just how superlative Hummel's deep bent notes were on songs like The Creeper Returns or mention just how far my jaw dropped when he displayed his lick vocabulary on Rockinitis, but I'd run out of adjectives and adverbs and cliches. Let me just mention that Tom McClendon is one fine man for bringing such talent into Houston once again. Even if I've never looked the man in the eyes, I can see his soul reflected in his sun shades--stone solid blues soul. There always some mighty fine folks hanging out there too. IF you're ever in Houston, don't pass up checkin' out The Big Easy.

P.S--For us gear hounds, Hummel blew through his mighty fine Sonny Jr Avenger amplifier.He told me that he had his Sonny Jr Cruncher with him also and loved both, leaning a bit towards the Cruncher, but felt The Avenger fit the club best. Mike Morgan's amp is the well worn Fender Bassman.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Paddy's Day

While picking out something green to comply with St. Patrick Day regulations, I reminded myself that my wife, son and myself spent last St. Patrick's Day in Chicago. I posted a bunch of pics and ran down the activities of the week (blues bands, Blue Man Group, visiting Hemingway's boyhood home, etc...). BUT one of the highlights was the hostess at Harry Carey's seating us in HIS booth and eating corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. What a lovely trip that was. If you have the inclination, check the archives from last year.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Writing 'Bout The Blues

Just going to share my experience at my first writer type event as a participant (hopefully, it'll not be my last). Last month a teacher at the local middle school called me and invited me to be a guest at their annual Authors and Appetizers luncheon and I felt very honored. The purpose of the event is to expose students to real, live writers of poetry and prose, and to have them meet, mingle and mix with them at the luncheon. In other words, provide proof that authors are normal 'real' people. Now, as far as myself, I still have this strange difficulty accepting myself as being introduced as a 'writer', even after having many interviews, articles and music reviews published; and a novel about to be. I've had friends and relative present me to others that way and I'm always inclined to look around to see who they are introducing.

At this event, thirty or forty students milled around on the bottom floor of a stately old mansion, reserved for weddings, society wing dings and events like this one. I wandered around aimlessly, not knowing really what my duties were, but it soon became plain as a group of students walked past me and one young man said, "Are you an author?" I tried to sound confident and told him that I certainly was one, because I figured I needed to own up to it right then and there. We eight authorly types had no name tags and the students were struggling determining us from the other  regular adults milling about.

One proclaimed, "I can't tell the authors from the parents."

His teacher said, "That's exactly the point. See, they are just like anyone else." Then she said, pointing to me,"There's one there." And another group of students approached and followed their instructions to introduce themselves, thank me for coming and ask questions about my writing. Did my heart good to witness these students, dressed nicely, conduct themselves with impeccable manners. Some of them truly seemed to take an interest in my answers, then they were off to the next author on their scavenger list. I found it all quite enjoyable.

Soon after, we took random seats at random tables and I was joined by a group of students, along with the superintendent of schools and my state representative. Since I taught the latter in journalism back in the day, she did help validate my credentials somewhat. We ate a great meal while the students peppered me with questions. I could tell that a couple of the girls at the table had a passion for writing, and I had hopes that no one dashed the fire before they graduate.

After the meal, we all gathered for author presentations, which due to time restraints, meant keep it short and sweet. I was told to come up first. Now, being that I had no book out on the market to read passages from yet, nor a cover design for them to look at, I decided to pull out my 'C' harp and play a couple of blues riffs. Of course, that is not something that they expected at all, nor did their parents, who came out of the kitchen area to see what the heck was going on in our room. They applauded kindly, but I could see the look on some eyes that said, "Okay, your point?"

At that point I began to explain my affinity for the blues and how it relates to my writing. I told them that I'd been listening to, reading about and playing the blues for a long, long time and that when I began writing, I simply wrote about what I knew. I recounted for them, the wonderful blues musicians who allowed me to question them about their craft (in particular harmonica playing) and share their answers with readers who also found a passion for the blues. Of course, I told them when my ideas for a novel began to blossom, that my protagonist had to be blues musicians--specifically, blues harp musicians. Also had to tell 'em that River Bottom Blues would mostly carry a PG-13 rating and before they purchase a copy when it came out next Fall, they might should run the idea by their parents. Being the first up, I kept my spiel real short. I taught school long enough to know, though, that when it comes to students; short is good.

So, the first time out as author was certainly a rewarding experience for me. If other opportunities come along, I hope I have audiences who exhibited the same enthusiasm that these middle school did. Maybe, at some point, I'll own up to the title...'writer'.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lightnin' Up

Sorta got on a Lightnin' Hopkins kick here recently. It's Alan Govenar's fault for writing such a great biography of one of the greatest bluesmen to ever bend a string or turn a phrase--and no one could do either like Sam Hopkins could. Well, it's not really Govenar's fault, because the Texas bluesman has been one of my favorites for, oh, about thirty years. It's just that bios of musicians send me scurrying to my music library to kind of relive or revive the reason I bought a certain selection and also to compare my aural assessment with the author's.

Somewhere on the blog here I'm pretty sure that I mentioned that Lightnin' Hopkins was the first 'live' blues musician that I'd ever seen. Back in the Summer of '71, a good friend of mine told me that Liberty Hall in Houston had booked Lightnin' Hopkins. I'd been away a college and hadn't heard of Liberty Hall. We used to travel  up to Houston to Love Street and the Cellar and catch Billy Gibbons with the Moving Sidewalks (pre-ZZTop), the Thirteen Floor Elevators and other such up and comers. My friend's older brother had crossed over to the darkside (of the blues) a few years before we did and he kept us apprised of such worthy events.

If you've heard the story, skip to the next paragraph. So, we ventured up to Houston from our small coastal berg and parked ourselves inside of Liberty Hall, which was a great venue for the show. Bruce Springsteen played his first Texas gig there. Lightnin' was booked for two shows that night and we attended the early show. After the house lights dimmed, the skinny frame of the immaculately dressed bluesman ambled onto stage and sat down in a metal folding chair and place a brown sacked bottle next to it. After the applause died down, an assistant brought out a Stratocaster and strapped it around his shoulders and Lightnin' grew ten feet tall in my eyes once he ripped into those first licks. Thirty years later, I certainly can't recall just what he played, but I can recall just how powerful he played it. I've seen lots of blues musicians since then (I'll use Buddy Guy as a point of reference), and no one has ever impressed me with a more dynamic performance that that solitary, scarecrow of a figure laying down stone cold blues that night and singing in a voice that tingled my backbone. He spun tales, stomp his foot like Hooker and boogied down the set. As we walked to the door after the performance, my friend required a detour to the men's room and I followed. Once we stepped inside, he said, "Let's hang out here until the next show starts." Whaat? Well, we hid out in the men's room until the hall cleared and we heard people being let in for the late show, then we took a couple of seats in back of the hall. No one bothered us and we got to see Lightnin' light up Liberty Hall for a second time. It was pretty much the same show, with the same tales, which was quite alright by us.

I had one LP by Lightnin' at that time. It was the Sam Charters' Folkways album from '59, which was supposedly his 'discovery' album for the white folk crowd. Basically, that's what I found lacking about it. The Lightnin' acoustic guitar on this album just didn't slap me around like that electrified performance at Liberty Hall. Sam Charter's tells the story in his liner notes, and Govenar expands the story in the bio, about trying to find Lightnin' at his house, on the streets of the Third Ward and at the juke joints of the Houston neighborhood. He claims that it was Lightnin' that found him, by pulling his car up along side his at a stop light and asking, "Hey, you lookin' for me?" Story continues with Charters saying that Lightnin' had pawned his guitars, so he took him to the pawn shop and agreed to pay off one of them. Lightnin' wanted his electric and Charters demanded the acoustic. Lightnin' should have demanded his electric. Then again, Charters wanted to introduce him to the folkies with the field recordings that he made of Lightnin' at home. He didn't want that nasty, good ol' distorted amped up sound that Lightnin' whomped out on the Herald sessions. The type of whomping blues he played in juke joints, like the Sputnik, up and down Dowling Street. The type of stuff I heard blasting off the stage of Liberty Hall. Mack McCormick and Chris Strachwitz's recordings followed suit and they mostly amplified Lightnin's acoustic with a pickup.

I'd acquired some of the Herald recordings, but they were mixed in with a compilation of material from other various and sundry labels. The discography that Governar's book tabulates is totally mind boggling, and I can't think of any bluesman, other than maybe John Lee Hooker, that comes anywhere close to the number of labels for which Lightnin' recorded. According to the bio, he played for pay--up front, didn't want no stinkin' royalties and the hell with honoring any sort of contract. I didn't really realize that it was the Herald sessions that turned my ear, until I read the biography. Back when I was digging a lot of Lightnin', there were few places to obtain his stuff and fewer places to research such stuff--pre-Al Gore's internet invention. Plus, I'd kind of fallen deep into the Mississippi mud and it's Chicago offspring. Muddy, Elmore, the Walters and the Wolf had a strong gravitation pull.

So, one of the first things that the biography enticed me into doing--and by golly, it's a must read--was to try and get my hands on the Herald recordings, which was as simple as one clicking Amazon for Lightnin' and the Blues: The Herald Sessions Original Masters recorded in 1954. This, my blues friends, smokes, cooks with gas and oozes blues from the deep end of the red clay and piney woods of East Texas by way of the Third Ward. Lightnin' did the same thing that his contemporaries did when they left the delta and hit the city--they plugged in and let 'er rip. This is Pat Hare playing with Muddy Waters and is flat out as good as anything that came out of Chicago in the mid-'50s (which is saying a lot, because that is the era as far as I'm concerned). All it took for me was the opening riffs of Nothin' But The Blues and that marvelous Texas drawl of Sam Hopkins to convince me that this was IT.

Don't get me wrong, I love lots of recording in my collection that Lighnin' holds court over, but when he cranks up his guitar and gets that amp distorting as if the speaker cones are tearing apart, then that is where the soul of Sam Hopkins lies. Most of the recordings of Hopkins that I don't care about are those on which he's been saddled with a combo of drummer and bass player who are clueless as to how to follow his timing. Most of the time, the train is veering from the track heading for a wreck. As the bio points out, those that played with Lightnin' Hopkins found that following his lead to be treacherous territory. On some recordings, his support clicks marvelously with him and gold is struck. That is the scenario with the Herald stuff. Donald Cook's upright bass playing and Ben Turner's drumming lock in on Lightnin' and fit him like a glove. Best Hopkin's ensemble ever. According to the bio, most of the Gold Star and Aladdin sessions were played electric, but the amplification just wasn't there. Some of the Arhoolie recordings from Chris Strachwitz were electric, but tamely so compared to what came before. As a matter of fact (from the bio), it seems that both Charters and Strachwitz assumed that the Aladdin/Gold Star recordings were acoustic--another reason Charters bailed the acoustic out of hock.

Chris Strachwitz, by the way, has been the subject of featured stories in the major blues publications and blogs recently, coinciding with the release of Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads, and Beyond and the companion book, Down Home Music, A Journey Through The Heartland 1963. Govenar features him prominently in his book because of the relationship he had with Hopkins', going back to the fifties. Strachwitz recorded numerous sides of Hopkins and was his promoter for many concert appearances, especially on the West Coast. Even Strachwitz admits that his favorite recordings of Lightnin' were the Herald recordings and that those were the ones he heard first that convinced him to travel to Houston in order to seek out Hopkins. I do need to mention, since I blogged about tracking down Jeff Carp, that Strachwitz captured a great version of  Rock Me Baby with Carp blowing some kind of fat backed Chi-town type blues harp. Sorta proves that Lightnin' could have given those cats up there a run for there money at their own game. Speaking of a run for their money, the bio points out that Lightnin' Hopkins pretty much out sold Muddy Waters in the early fifties and they more or less swapped that lead back and forth throughout the decade. Lightnin' certainly traveled a great deal more than I realized. Seems that California and New York City were second homes for him whenever he decided to leave Texas. Even though he hated flying, it seems that he was still touring Europe and places like Japan just a few years before he passed away in 1982.

I'd read accounts of Strachwitz's adventures into the Third Ward prior to Govenar's book because I've read liner notes and blues magazine interviews for decades now. Same thing with Charters and Mack McCormick. Govenar calls up a lot of what I've read, but the value is in the reams of additional information that he has sussed out from these guys and others who knew Po' Lightnin' intimately, like Texas Johnny Brown or Ed and Bernie Pearl who operated the Ash Grove folk music club in Los Angeles and booked Lightnin' throughout the '60s. I especially enjoyed the tales of J.J. Phillips, who made a pilgrimage from California to meet her hero. The light skinned African American teenager, who could pass as white, found her target in the Third Ward and after several trips, eventually established an intimate relationship with the blues bard. She documented the experience and fictionalized it in the novel, Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale. Her recollections of hangin' with Lightnin' are priceless, so are Govenar's documentation of the musician's life. Put down Lightnin' Hopkins His Life and Blues by Alan Govenar on the "gotta it read" list.

P.S.--Speaking of books, don't forget to keep River Bottom Blues on your radar. It won't be out until the Fall of 2011, so I'll throw a little reminder out every once and awhile. Who could pass up a crime novel featuring blues harp players?